The tough stuff

tough stuff - tots to teens

As a parent, it’s naturally hard to watch your child struggle or fail, but you’re not doing them any favours by sparing them the tough sting of disappointment. Kids who do hard things independently (regardless of the outcome) feel greater satisfaction and will master a new skill much earlier than those who don’t keep trying or who get assistance.

I have a love/hate relationship with this modern age of parenting. We certainly have a lot of help at our fingertips, (we’ve got Nigel Latta for goodness sake!) and that’s a real plus. There is such a mind-boggling array of appliances, programmes, and aids to make our lives simpler and more convenient. Yahoo!

But when it comes to parenting, we can’t set out to make our children’s lives easier, nor should we try. How many times a day are we tempted to make our day a little more manageable by doing things for our kids, when perhaps we should first ask the question, “Is there a good learning moment here? If I continue to do it for them, will they ever learn to do it themselves?” The opportunity we have as caregivers is that we choose our theme – a theme which threads through our lives, loud and strong – as we live out our lives in front of our children. What will that theme be? One of good humour, perseverance and patience?

Sure, we are all aware of the great feeling of satisfaction which comes from succeeding in doing something that is challenging. The trick for us as parents is to encourage our kids to be aware of things they personally find difficult and get behind them 100%, even when they try and fail. Whether success is just around the first corner or the hundredth, they need to be sure we will be there for them and to know that we want them to experience the satisfaction of trying something hard, experiencing the discomfort, and yes, sometimes, even the sting of failure.

You see, to make some mass generalisations, this generation doesn’t like public failure, they don’t really like to stand out, they like to hedge their bets. We see this more and more with the increasing use of facebook and other social networking sites – children make a comment, then gauge through the amount of ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ the perceived success or failure of their comment. They then assess whether to put themselves out there again, for fear of others publically noticing and commenting on their lack of responses or interest.

However, failure develops grit, character, resilience … the list could go on. Yes, maybe it’s maths or spelling that is really hard for our child, but it might just as importantly be that waiting patiently is really difficult for them, or doing their homework without moaning, or being thoughtful towards a family member. It might be learning the art of sitting still and listening to the elderly neighbour, offering an interested nod with some eye contact thrown in. If they learn to work on these smaller challenges, then when real struggles come their way, they will understand that they need to persevere and work through it. “Feel the pain and do it anyway…” is a relevant quote here and, to put my own end to the sentence, “…whether you succeed or fail, because the satisfaction is in the doing of it.”


Let them struggle a little, then encourage them to keep trying or try again. If they start to really get upset, then hopefully you know them well enough to gauge when they have become genuinely overwhelmed (at which time you can step in and finish something together) or whether they are just frustrated at things not working for them. You can always try again another day. Try not to leap in to rescue them too early. If we remember a lot of our childhood milestones, we would never have mastered a particular skill without grinding through the frustration of making bunny-ears with our laces, for instance, for what seemed like days on end before victory was ours.


You can talk things through a lot more with this age-group. You can be the ‘coach’ to make them laugh when they are fed up, to encourage them to have one more go, to give them a word of meaningful praise at the right moment. You will find they will naturally do that with others in time.


  • Sit down with your child and both make a list of your ‘all-time hardest stuff to do’. Talk about why you find those things hard, imagine the worst that could happen if you tried them and failed, then imagine how great you would feel if you did it as an experiment.
  • Factor into your week something you don’t like to do and ask your child to help you. It might be that you hate weeding the garden, so ask them to remind you to do it and then get them to work alongside you.
  • Occasionally at the dinner table, toss in the question “What’s the hardest thing you’ve done today? This week? This year?” Talk about how they feel about themselves having given it a go.
  • Talk as a family about the people in your lives that you admire and why. For example, “I am really proud of Uncle Barry because I know how much time he has put into fixing that car and it hasn’t been easy.” It’s great to have famous role-models who have achieved amazing things, but it’s also really important for your kids to find qualities in ordinary people which inspire and challenge them.

Note: Try not to make things about success or failure – make them more about the building of character so that they don’t get the message that you will celebrate only if success is the end result. Have a celebration around the idea of what they have learnt or overcome.

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